Just kids, maybe. But they were children of that other Miami, where the young can distinguish the pop, pop, pop, pop of an assault weapon from the mundane report of pistol fire.
It was the day after. Long sheets of butcher paper had been taped to the bullet-riddled wall where their young friend had been murdered on Monday night. By Tuesday afternoon, the paper had been covered with Magic Marker tributes to the 15-year-old victim known thereabouts by his nickname. Someone had scrawled, “RIP Popcorn.”
They milled about. Read the epitaphs. Talked about the inexplicable attack on their Model City apartment complex that left young Joewuan Coles dead and four other young men wounded. Chrysteanah Everett, 16, was telling Antwan Johnson, 23, that even from inside her apartment across the courtyard, she could tell from the sound of the gunfire that the killers had come armed with fearsome weaponry.
This is what we need to know, those of us who live in South Florida neighborhoods where loud bangs don’t send us cowering away from windows and doorways. That kids from the other Miami know this stuff. That they can talk about gunfire with an expertise one might expect of war refugees from Fallujah or Ramadi.
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The shooters hit about 9 p.m. Monday night. Reportedly, they were two young men, dressed in black, armed with assault rifles, firing dozens of shots as they came around the southeast corner of the drab beige apartment complex known as the Seven-Five (derived from the nearby intersection where Northwest 75th Street crosses 17th Avenue).
Both Chrysteanah and Antwan insisted that residents of the Seven-Five had previously been unassociated with the murderous gangland disputes that have terrorized Liberty City, Overtown and Model City. To them, the shock was not that this area had been hit with another bloody mass shooting. Just the immediate address. “We’ve got no beef in the Seven-Five,” Johnson said.
But perpetrators of Miami’s inner city gun madness don’t recognize gangland agnostics. Joewuan, whose only affiliation was with the Northwestern High School football team, not with any local gangs, seemed to be another hapless victim. “Wrong place, wrong time,” Chrysteanah said. An unintended victim. Though the term “unintended” implies a kind of logic that’s tough to apply to these crazed shootings.
By coincidence, I had an appointment with Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle on Tuesday, the very day after this latest shooting, to discuss the epidemic of gun violence that has plagued the county’s poorest neighborhoods.
Fernández Rundle had statistics and a strategy that she was cobbling together with police and local ministers, assigning two assistant state attorneys to ZIP codes stricken by the violence. She pulled out a map that illustrated the disturbing clusters of death and blood and terror.
And there was something personal. Fernández Rundle talked about a Sunday afternoon, on Feb. 8, when she emerged from a visit to Mount Sinai Missionary Baptist Church in Liberty City. “It was a glorious, sunny day,” she remembered.
Outside the church, she found a commotion unfolding that made the sunshine seem nearly surreal. People were excited. Then she heard sirens wailing. Not far away, at 1:34 p.m. on that beautiful Sunday afternoon, a teenage boy had been ambushed, suffering multiple gunshot wounds, including one bullet that ripped through his cheeks. Two young gunmen — brothers, police said — had fired off shots, then escaped in a gold 1999 Nissan Maxima. Police said it was driven by the shooters’ mother, Belinda Fay Norwood, who has been arrested in connection with the shooting.
The victim lived. Shooting incidents that don’t end in homicide go largely unremarked by the Miami media. What bothers Fernández Rundle is that homicides alone don’t begin to describe the extent of the gun terror afflicting these neighborhoods.
Her office looked at police statistics collected in 2014 and found 30 gun homicides in the Liberty City, Model City and Overtown neighborhoods that are most afflicted by gang shootings. But those 30 were among 113 shootings that left someone maimed by bullets. The Seven-Five shooting on Monday night followed that pattern, with one dead and four wounded survivors.
The average victim, she said, was 15 to 16 years old — which matched the average age of the shooter, though that figure was gleaned from a much smaller sample. Police were able to make only 20 arrests out of those 113, though 10 of those were in homicide cases, which demand extra police attention.
The problem, of course, is that witnesses willing to help police identify the shooters are a scarce commodity. The threat of gang retaliation hangs over these communities like a storm cloud. Fernández Rundle said it was the lucky finding of video from surveillance cameras near the scene of the Feb. 8 shooting that enabled detectives to identify Belinda May Norwood and her gun-toting sons.
Maybe that explains the strategy of a mass shooting. Gun down innocents like Joewuan Coles amid a gang assassination, just to remind the community that gangbangers will not only kill cooperating witnesses, they’ll shoot up the whole damn neighborhood. Innocents be damned.
“I’m afraid to go out at night,” Chrysteanah Everett told me.
After all, she said, “Everybody liked Popcorn.”
Evidence of that affection was the heap of flowers and stuffed animals on the patch of grass where he had fallen Monday evening. In less than a day, the stack became bigger than any of the homicide memorials I had seen these last few years. Popcorn’s was topped off by his football trophy, a reminder that he was an athlete, not a gangbanger.
“He didn’t hate nobody,” Chrysteanah said. But that’s not enough to keep a kid safe in the other Miami.